Tree of heaven (Ailanthus altissima). Photo: CKISS.

Tree of heaven

Ailanthus altissima


  • Deciduous tree that grows up to 30 m tall
  • Bark is smooth and brownish-green (young), becoming rougher and brown-grey (mature), resembling the skin of a cantaloupe
  • Twigs are smooth, greenish/pink/reddish/brown, and have heart-shaped leaf scars when broken
  • Leaves up to 50 cm long, are green (summer) vs. yellow (fall), contain multiple leaflets, and have smooth margins except for two lobes at the base. The lobes have a gland on the underside.
  • Nicknamed “stinking sumac” because the leaves release a foul odor when crushed
  • Flowers are small, white-greenish, and grow in clusters
  • Produces red-brown clusters of pod-like samaras containing one seed each
Mature tree of heaven patch.
Young, greenish stem/trunk of tree of heaven.
Older, brown stem of tree of heaven with rougher, cantaloupe-like texture.
Tree of heaven whorl of leaves.
Tree of heaven heart-shaped leaf scar on stem.
Tree of heaven leaflets.
Tree of heaven leaflets, front and back.
Pair of toothed glands at base of leaflets.
Tree of heaven flower clusters.
Tree of heaven seed pods (samaras). Note the one seed per pod.
Tree of heaven young sapling.
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Introduction and spread

  • Native to China and Taiwan
  • Introduced to North America for ornamental purposes
  • Believed to have the most rapid growth of any tree (native/non-native) in North America
  • Resistant to drought and tolerates various conditions, including nutrient poor soils and pollution
  • Resistant to predation from herbivores and pathogenic diseases
  • Reproduces by seed and vegetatively
  • Can produce 300,000+ seeds per year and has a high germination rate

Consequences of invasion

  • Invades forest openings and edges, corridors, roadsides, and riverbanks
  • Adult spotted lanternfly. Photo: Lawrence Barringer.
  • It is the preferred host of spotted lanternfly (Lycorma delicatula), an invasive insect that severely threatens the agricultural (particularly fruit) and forestry industries
  • Displaces native vegetation by outcompeting plants for resources and releasing toxic chemicals into the soil
  • Thrives in full sunlight, impacting early-successional plant communities
  • Reduces forage for wildlife
  • Impacts infrastructure: its roots can penetrate asphalt, walls, building foundations, and it can enter sewers
  • Impacts human health: pollen can cause allergic reactions, sap can cause dermatitis, and it may (very rarely) cause myocarditis if it enters the bloodstream
  • Costly and difficult to eradicate
  • Infestation of tree of heaven along roadside. Photo: CKISS.

Status in the CKISS region

Integrated pest management options


  • Do not plant this species. Learn about Grow Me Instead and PlantWise to grow non-invasive alternatives.
  • Do not move contaminated soils to a new area.
  • Clean clothing, boots, and gear before entering/leaving an area.
  • Monitor tree of heaven for spotted lanternfly and report sightings to CKISS and EDDMaps.

Mechanical control

  • Digging/Hand-pulling seedlings can be effective if the entire root system is removed.
  • Simply cutting the tree down is ineffective because the tree will re-sprout.
  • Ideally, treat with herbicide and wait 30 days for the tree to die before cutting it down.
  • Consider seeking a professional to remove tree of heaven from your property.

Chemical control

  • Requires persistent treatments because it can re-sprout from stumps and root fragments.
  • Applying herbicide to a cut stump will not prevent new growth from the roots.
  • Requires ongoing monitoring for regrowth and repeated applications.
  • Herbicides with triclopyr or glyphosate can be effective control and can minimize effects on non-target plants.

Additional resources

Tree of heaven leaves. Photo: CKISS.